Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, December 30, 2016

Best of 2016

A dirty super dude/mutant lying back in a speeding garbage truck: is there a more apt image for 2016? Only one: Harley Quinn, a sexy blonde with rocket popsicle-colored hair, a bat slung over her shoulder (the bat has replaced the bow for woman's weapon of choice). Gone gonzo loco at the hands of the Joker, she--like Deadpool--demonstrates a fathomless tolerance for madness, pain, frustration, and garbage,  the requirements for anyone hoping to survive 2017. One must either join it, slam that whiskey shot and grab a blackjack and dive into the melee, or just stand on the sidelines in aghast horror, your threats of moving to Canada or Europe as empty as they were 12 years ago. Maybe instead you should think about moving to Germany, being an expatriate artist and letting the circle be complete. I know that's what I'm thinking about. But I've been thinking about it for 120 years.

Madness. Considering all the other BLACK MIRROR stuff going on, America shouldn't be too surprised it's having a "Waldo Moment." In fact, we should have seen it coming. The surer we are about something, the more likely it is to surprise us and be something else. For example, the one movie I was sure I'd love, THE NEON DEMON, well, I did not. The one Marvel comic villain I was sure I'd dislike, Oscar Isaac in X-MEN APOCALYPSE, turned out to be the best part of that woeful step backwards for Bryan 'just another Ratner" Singer.

Nothing makes sense. We need to go back over the facts and see where we veered from them. We drove around that signpost up ahead / through the looking glass / above the clouds, beyond the rain, and we can either hang around the munchkins like a bad penny or throw apples at flying monkeys like a local and trust we'll find our way back when our back is good and ready cuz we never lost it to begin the beguine with. Hell, even the Satanists are worried for humanity now, as fake news fuels "won't someone think of the children?!" hysteria to levels not seen in this country since the red scare of 1954, or Salem 1693.

Whatever. This is a place for wolves now. Very. drunk. wolves

It's still 2016 as I write this, a year where little moments made the big horrible picture more easily avoidable and just as it did in the early 80s when my generation was STRANGER THINGS age, comic books stepped in like a whole new kind of truth, far more urgent and vivid than anything as ridden with petty agendas as the actual 'true' news. Money doesn't fill the seats and stuff so carefully calibrated for class and awards import makes not a bit of sense or weight either. I can imagine JACKIE being sooo great, but who really cares, unless it's to perhaps make the point that our martyring of JFK and horror over Trump the next are really just two reflections of the same eddy in the same empty icon swamp. Coming back from the holidays with our red-blue state divides drawn along the dinner centerpiece, things should be coming very clear.... we're not fooling anyone by thinking we're above the shit line. We're all crazy Americans looking for an image to follow around like a red flag waving an empty bull.

Dir. Tim Miller

If Terry Southern were writing superhero movies they would certainly reflect the cheeky youth of today's unique PC-hipster vulgarity instead of his own sex-obsessed, patriarchally presumptive, eternal anti-authoritarian (political) satire on male vanity--which seems archaic if allowed to linger too long (i.e. after the first brilliant half of CANDY). That shit wouldn't fly today, but the kind of humor in DEADPOOL on the other hand is so pop culture-obsessed, it will never date, anymore than TWENTIETH CENTURY has dated with all its CAMILLE and RAIN references. The frenzied control of GOODFELLAS runs headlong into a Marx Bros. under the knife saga that's one part Billy Eichner, one part Wolverine when he was still a badass (the first two X-MEN films), Robert Downey Jr. in IRON MAN if he was less of a tech geek playboy and more of a sarcastic mercenary who'd rather slow jam to Wham!, play skeeball, start fights at his merc watering hole and beat up stalkers--and all of the EXPENDABLES flame-circumcised down into a helium and mocha jave whippet. Reynolds whose voice indicates he's never smoked a cigarette or even been near an open flame is another of the great macho fey icons to come prancing down the pike, fearlessly flouting his mastery of all the pffft-sounds in the Ikea catalogue.

The right kind of deep voice is important to me (since both I and my father have one) but if a straight brother's gonna own his girliness I can totally get behind that. With Mr. Pool here, you can call him a girl and we wont be offended, but with that PC innateness comes an unwillingness to turn one's back on the merely puerile and with a confidence in this one franchise at least it's okay to shoot the villain point blank in the head after you have him at your mercy. Finally, and thank god.

For these myriad other reasons my artsier reader might bemoan this choice for #1, might think I'm slipping, a further slide that began back when I declared DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES superior to Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, but this film is a great big messy obscene masterpiece of the sort that's so voraciously outside the box and fresh you can smell the dirt - the filthy dust that box has been buried in nigh under 540 years. See it as I did,  while waiting for CRT scan test results after being initially diagnosed with COPD, and barely able to breathe, wondering if your clock is now speeding up, death looming fast, and then suffering the horrible withdrawal from smoking that accompanies such fear like an electric amp, so stretches of being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and then subjected to a horrific airless vacuum tube torture chamber where you slowly suffocate but the machine keeps giving you just enough to keep you from passing out or falling asleep. I knew Mr. Pool understood, and that helped.

Also there was someone finally aggressive enough to slice off a bad guy's head then drop kick the head into another guy right behind camera, one of the coolest moves in fight history. As the girlfriend, Moreena Baccarin rocks so hard, bro. Impossibly hot yet hilarious, she seems born into this kind of rattatat tat Hawksian hipster wry humor; TJ Miller is terrific as the bartender buddy --way funnier than just that gross 'avocado had sex with another avocado' soundbyte they mark him in; Gina Carano is the henchmen! When the Brit bad guy has a girl doing his heavy duty ass kicking for him, well, we really are making social progress. There's even two X-Men, tying the franchise to be in with that one, though hilariously there are only two (insert meta comment), one the giant Russian Colossus (kind of weakly animated and voiced, but so what? it works); and Teenage Dynamo Rocket or something, a girl too young to get DP's oblique Sinead O'Connor references re: her short crop hair, and who's wide ungainly girl frame matches well the wider stance of this post-UFC Carano, and reminding too of how Rothrock was in the old days- which is to say, they look like genuine, real brawlers, not dancers or models. And even the soundtrack is refreshing in its emphasis on 70s-80s lite FM, from Wham! to "Just call me Angel of the Morning" - rather than endless beatz and traxx. In short, it's a whole new realm of masculine crying, and undying, with fey men and brawler babes. There's not even an issue with proposing to a prostitute strip club bartender (Peckinpah would be so pleased), or telling your cab driver to kill his romantic rival and dump the corpse on his girlfriend's porch. 

Dir David McKenzie

When people really are from the place their characters are, they don't need to make the characters 'normal' in the way privileged clueless screenwriters cloud their dialogue in sanctification of the common man, like Barton Fink or Sullivan (the characters, not the films), or any of the Commie rats in the below Coen film. When lesser writers do these chamber piece red state bank robber brother-bonding odysseys they get hung up on big messy Oscar-bait drinking scenes. They write not for themselves but their didactic Sundance teacher from that old workshop they attended: what's 'real,' man vs. the hardship blah blah. Here it's the way the bank robbing pair of brothers--specially the older, wilder jailbird one (Ben Foster), constantly surprise us with their natural, easygoing back and forth. We also have the laconic, near-retired sheriff, his Navajo (but half-Mexican and devout Christian!) deputy, and all the lawyers and bank tellers and waitresses in between. They don't need those artificial 'weathered' facial cracks big budget films give people in the Heartland to give off the feeling of being where they are. Here the the flat endless horizon-line is a kind of TV, everyone trains their eyes on it and they stare at each other the same way, waiting for one or the other to make a move for their gun. The acting matches the writing, each so good the other gets better because of it. Chris Pine more than lives up to the promise he showed in the STAR TREKs -- moving so deep into character you'd swear he was found by a roaming casting director hitchhiking through Arlington. I had lines of his and his brothers' ringing in my head for weeks afterwards.

Dir. Chris Kelly

As any story by David Sidaris illustrates, if you want to see a complex, cool, badass hilarious woman, look to the mom of an brilliant, gay humorist. Here, fusing genuinely transgressive hilarity with emotional gut-punch cancer mortality-facing, it's SNL writer Kelly's autobiographical tale of the last days with his. The performances have a lightning-in-the-bottle immediacy where you don't just see and hear him and his family members, but hear how each others' voice and style have influenced one another during formative pasts and the pokey but relentless way those traits re-manifest during stressful reunion. Molly Shannon's performance especially is so jaw-droppingly immense and complex you need to re-think all the other death bed scenes you've cried over, and there's a break-out WTF turn with child actor JJ Totah as a preteen fashion designer who leaves any visible distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine, clear in the dust. This is wrenching emotional comedy for people who hate all that manipulative twelve-hanky sentimental self-righteous bourgeois intellectual Tennenbaum bullshit. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be talking about it. But I am, brother.

Dir Denis Villeneuve

Science says this movie came out last year - but it came to cable this year, and that's where the fuckin' world saw it. No one wanted to pay $15 to see yet another goddamned movie about border-crossing drug gangs and the gringo cops that lose their souls scratching the surface. But on cable, if it springs up on you halfway through while idly surfing, then right quick you realize it's way better than we thought. Instead of trying to shoehorn human interest in with the border cop's soccer-lovin' son they should have played up the eerie enigmatic near-Apocalypse of the Lambs artistry at work, the refreshingly ominous and abstract use of sound, the way Jóhann Jóhannsson's droning ominous synthesizer casts an intoxicating pall over the proceedings, as if the bottom is slowly dropping out in an endless elevator to Hell that opens out onto the sky at the same time

The plot's the old familiar girl idealist in a grim clear-eyed man's world. Fuckin' both del Toro and Josh Brolin are so tight, the drive-thru into Mexico with the armored trucks to pick up a local drug higher-up on the chain, deep into the heart of the cartel beast, so to speak--bodies hanging off the overpass -- is so chilling you expect (and almost get) the giddy weird 'you are there' vibe of, say, being 16 and going to Trenton for your first major drug deal. As the moral compass Emily Blunt whispers through the whole movie like a lover trying not to wake her kids. Brolin and del Toro have such chemistry they're reminiscent of Clu and Lee in the '64 KILLERS. The easy realism of the various military-CIA-Texas Ranger joint-op briefings recalls the best Hawks' men-in-group maturity, which is so rare it must be savored, like a last meal.

Written and directed by Shane Black 

(PS - 6/17): I've cheated by sneaking this one on here late as I finally saw it on HBO for the fourth time and that really is the charm. More and more I'm noticing that there's really no one in Hollywood, EXCEPT Shane Black who knows how to write great buddy dialogue, fast and flowing and the way two cool guys talk to each other and play off each other's energies. He's got it so down that he can even conjure it up with kids. I generally hate kids in movies but Black's written us two of the coolest kid characters since Jim Hawkins in the lad who harbors Tony Stark in IRON MAN 3 (2013) and here, the daughter Holly (Angouri Rice) with her detective father (Ryan Gosling). The comedic rhythms between her, Gosling and Crowe are so deft and daffy with crackerjack gonzo precision one is actually tempted to run away from its brilliance--it's so foreign now, we thought the days of Ben Hecht, Hawks, Hecht, George S. Kaufman, and WC Fields were gone. I held off on seeing this for awhile as the ads made me groan as to another of those diffusion-filtered 70s-set HD movies and TV series that seem like an excuse for wide collars and sideburns and occasional cigarettes and of course a nonstop 70s rock soundtrack. I thought it was one of them, but I was dead wrong.

Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo

Sure it's awful prescient in its tale of a ruthless Communist ripping America in half and setting the two sides at each other's throats, but CIVIL WAR has hit home in ways even closer than that (for me), Working in higher academia, I've had to watch, powerless, as it undergoes another of its groupthink overreach oversight micro-managing anal-retentive freak-outs (the last one being in the early 90s). Thank god I've got this Marvel entry to help me check myself from getting too far along in my righteous iconoclasm. Perhaps the first film ever--superhero or other--to really look at what's gained and lost when the submission of raw personal power to checks and balances/authority takes firm root. Now, more than ever, we may taste the bitter fruit of true democracy, but seeing the utter impossibility of complete lateral fairness and pulling the trigger anyway might be the most badass thing a badass can do. Either choice, we're miles away from the smarmy dialectic of authority as evil vs. a kind of saintly hot-rod confabulated conformist anticonformity. Both sides are right / both sides murder. I give up. Why can't they? What kind of superhero movie leaves even the audience divided, even the audience of one?

I'm firmly in the old iconoclast tradition--I hate being told I no longer have the ability to tell a hawk from a hacksaw because I didn't get a masters in Hacksaw-Hawk Differentiation--and yet I also respect the need others might have to try and hem me in, create some abiding set of rules and measurements to weed out the hacks who think they're hacksaw experts because they've got four different HAMLET adaptations on DVD (I only got three). When both sides are working with respect to the other's import, the trailblazer doing what he's told can't be or shouldn't because he feels it's right, and taking the shit from higher up but getting 'er done (giving his upperlings 'plausible deniability') and the organizer of a common consensus doing the yelling and number crunching but sometimes to the point of quagmire stalemate buck-passing loop-de-loops, we have a functioning democracy. The old gunfighters can be either like Jason Robards in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, or Merlin in EXCALIBUR, helping ensure the conditions by which their particular set of skills becomes obsolescent, as the Taoist way of things, or WILD BUNCH blaze of glory it out in cathartic bloodbath. Democracy is always in peril, we've never been more than a swing state away from HANDMAID'S TALE-dystopia, when we forget that, the Russian dictator-du-jour divides and conquers us as easy as the grieving Sokovia ops villain does here.

The brilliant casting includes William Hurt as the general, voted by the UN to helm 'the Sokovia Accords," and there's even, finally, a properly sarcastic and on-the-beam Peter Parker/Spiderman (Tom Holland --a Brit, naturally). Then there's the show-stopper fight at the airport--easily the funniest, best battle yet because really we root for both sides. There are no winners or victory dances this time, just declarations of fealty beyond borders or association. When the smoke clears, if it ever does, we'll be picking up our Deke Thornton and riding off into the laughing corner sunset of fuckit and Alvarado.

Special mention should be made at this juncture for DR. STRANGE, another solid Marvel hit,  but which I can't get too into; despite it being all up my alley (super-psychedelic), its arc is just too similar to 08's original IRON MAN, its look just too similar to the post-CROUCHING TIGER look of all HK and Mainland China movies, it's overwrought orchestral score uses a sitar way way too late in the game to count as psychedelic. But Rachel McAdams is still super gorgeous and can act the fuckall out of all the men who get bigger superpowers than her. There's enough wry wit and "the source code that shapes reality" hallucinogenics to give it an HM though.

by Joel and Ethan Coen

It might be the brothers' funniest, wryest most succinct thesis on the trials of water yet, triangulating some kind of common free zone between their pet themes through a bizarre chain of events: an up-and-coming cowboy actor manages to rescue a dunderheaded A-lister (George Clooney) from a cabal of Jewish communist kidnappers thanks to his unspoken fraternal rapport with studio head Josh Brolin who--in a rare moment of flummox--shares that he's got $150K in a suitcase for the ransom. Scarlett Johansen, rocking her Lawng Island accent, is an Esther Williams-meets-Jean Harlow bathing beauty; Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly-cum-reverse-curtain-queer-Nuryev. Various broad comedic bits range from the shrill and misguided (Tilda Swinton's identical twin gossip hounds) to letter perfect sublime (Jonah Hill as the studio's dedicated legal example of 'personhood'). Look fast for alarmingly deft caricatures of John Ford, George Cukor, etc.

Though the brothers seem ever sidetracked by their musical number itch (lengthy, artsy approximations of everything from Busby Berkeley surrealism, Gene Kelly sailor suit gay rhumbas), and their elaborate progression of water symbolism (from the Scarlett water ballet to the Russian submarine escape, the sailor suit and hat, etc.) doesn't add up to anything more than a wave lapping up against a discarded satchel of money, but if you're a Godard fan who digs all the signifier-melting incongruities in PASSION or CONTEMPT, you will love seeing the silhouette of Josh Brolin's grey flannel suit against the Golgotha crucifixions when he prays on a midnight soundstage, or the contrast of an assistant director checking the lunch choices of the extra on the cross. Not all of it makes sense or holds together on close reflection but it's a movie that's going places we've not seen a Coen go since BARTON FINK. But it spares us the Barton Fink feeling, and thanks be to any god you're comfortable with.

Written and directed by David Ayer

David Ayer's Suicide Squad came out the same year Chimes at Midnight finally arrived on (Criterion) DVD / Blu-ray, and it's easy to mix them up. Falstaff's rousing his girth into conscription agent attire, letting the beasts out to fight bigger beasts as it were, using the debauched and breaking the phases, it all matches up. Today we hang in half-aware heir apparent fake laugh sanity, helping able souls hop onto the madness like a runaway trolley with no track and no floor and no wall. Jared Leto, as a Joker, silver teeth and lime rickey green and electric pink frame shudders as if the whole film is breathing lysergic insanity into his AirDancer-serpent-handler sway. Viola Davis gives one of the great gender-bent performances of the year, second only to JJ Totah (in Other People). The superfluous simon-shatter ayahuasca anima in-the-subway strangeness shines, even if the story leaves the audience behind, so we feel like we're being held back from the fight a few blocks by some cops who don't know hacks from hawksaws. I like that though --it's different. The cumulative effect is like the time-space shattering realization you've had wayyyy-y-y-y- to much ayahuasca-uasca-uasca and no longer understand what the guide is saying or where he is.

Margot Robbie snags top honors as Harley Quinn, her rocket-pop shimmering hallucination hair, the lighting beautifully capturing the gray shades in her clown make-up; her chemistry with Leto's Joker is twisted and grand. Jai Courtney's Aussie accent is in glorious disarray; there's a reptilian gangbanger; a flaming cholo; the Crazy 88s' surviving sword girl; Scott Eastwood, who believe it or not almost steals the movie with the cracked emotional tension in his low-ass voice; even Will Smith's inescapable 'good dad' daughter issues (my big fear going in) are well-handled.  Ayers did Training Day and Fury, or both, so rest assured this movie's way more macho in its even-gender-handedness than some pissing contest with Affleck's carb-faced Wayne like Superman vs. Batman. In fact the worst part of SG is Affleck's Batman who luckily only gets two or three scenes. Much was written about how fragmented and over-edited this film is, and it's clear it was once much longer (I haven't seen the 'extended cut' but intend to one day), but it still fookin' rocks.

Ayers displays his ayahuasca savvy - shhh
Confession (shhhh): I will have a soft spot for this film all the rest of my life because I relapsed to it over Xmas (after 19 years sober!), as I just couldn't handle shit sober up in a tiny Arizona mountain cabin with my brother's loud drunk family --I'd spent 24 hours shivering with nausea and rage in a tiny room while they roared outside. Once I surrendered to the power of Absolut the madness hit me and I partied like the rest of them -as loud and as crazy --the beast loose and wild as if I'd merely said the word "Enchantress" and downed a magic vodka slug (I did do the latter). Six weeks later I was in the hospital from acute alcoholic withdrawal couple to bad reactions with my anti-depression meds. I don't exactly regret it, because I got Ativan in the hospital and that shit ROCKS! Back to Xmas, this movie fit my relapse so tight I knew it was predestined: Scott Eastwood with his hunched-over military brawler demeanor, smoker's voice (and pallor) and legitimately crazy eyes; the Brooklyn accent of Harley Quinn + the overall look of the other female baddie, 'the Enchantress' in her grungy form (above left)' are--fused together, my old friend from 'the rooms,' the gorgeously unhinged LA Ruocco (see her magically surface on a Coney Island beach in the climactic Jungian conversion of THE LACAN HOUR) coupled to salvia divinorum hallucinations and the best use yet of of day-glow neon colors, fighting within swirling smoke, crazy rain on clenched faces, and swirling magical waves of energy-matter beams.

Dig - and deep underneath, the film's really a dual love story, between the Joker and Harley; between the Dr. June Moon and wild-eyed Scott Eastwood's Special Ops guy Rick Flag (!) for romance -- and in the end, between members of the Squad, the way a shared traumatic experience + booze + confessions of bad guy issues bonds the outlaws but the macho Ayers way (the bar confession/flashback scene is not unlike an AA meeting), through fearless courting of death, madness, and rainforest chanting. DC is still a long way off from reaching the stratospheric heights set by Marvel since they first set the bar back in 08's Iron Man -- but this is the first time we've seen them actually move in a promisingly unique direction since Heath Ledger's Joker. There's even scenes like Viola Davis shooting her own staff: "they weren't cleared for any of this shit," and the weird things like the way Mexicans, when they burst into demon form, all get goofy Aztec headdresses, and an editing format that sacrifices coherence in the fights to stretch out a nice little well-lit bar scene (PS - 3/8/13 - second viewing - now that I'm sober... again, or as we in AA call it, 'back in Arkham Asylum - less great; third viewing 4/19 - Fourth Viewing - it IS awesome - still sober).

Dir Denis Villeneuve

Technically this is the Villeneuve film from 2016 though it seems older than SICARIO.  I know, I haven't shut up about my Amy Adams embargo all week, but how long, realistically, do you think that bargo can last? Bitch is in everything, yo. Even now Superman is on TV behind me and there she is. Appearing in just about every movie ever made this or any other year. Maybe there's a reason, beyond some shiksa-phobic Hollywood-royal blood line reptilian conspiracy, that ginger Adams is so ubiquitous (or Chastain in INTERSTELLAR and THE MARTIAN), but it's not in our control. ARRIVAL deals specifically with physically solid aliens whose sense of time is more elliptical than ours, and Amy's wizened gnome crow's feet, small clear white facial hairs and gnome-ish upturned nose all bespeak promise for the future, She's a thinker, an academic for whom adherence to some basic blueprint for eye-grabbing beauty hasn't even cracked her top ten list of things to do today. Cracking a complex alien code so that the movie can avoid being INDEPENDENCE DAY 3 and start being more like an INTERSTELLAR's TREE OF LIFE takes all precedence in her mind. No worries though, we're safe with hectapods instead of Sean Penn. The alien pair look like two giant hands soaking in Palmolive and so forth, to the point I wondered if the idea for these aliens came during one of those 'stoned hand discoveries' where, half-asleep after work or high for the first time in years, you suddenly notice the miracle / alien/ strangeness of your own hands? How alien they are --so attuned to our brain, so alive and unreal. Walruses watch our typing speeds with mounting envy.

As ever, a linguist shall be the first to take off her hazmat suit and trust in the aummm-moment. Military man Forrest Whittaker gets riled but realizes she's right. Meanwhile we learn why they used to keep aliens a secret as civilization descends into looting and arson and sabotage in the wake of these funky hectapods. Why wouldn't it? Why not? Because evolution, man. Read a book, dude. Humins Rule! Do we get a do-over? 

Dir. Guy Maddin

If you're in a Guy Maddin movie, the emulsion Ektachrome rust has happened ahead of time, two or three feet ahead --just enough for your nightmare third-eye fevered brain to hallucinate patterns upon the bubbling shower curtain into which your silhouette dissolves and merges. It's all just enough to distract you so so the skeleton insurance defrauders can lull you into a gentle trance, and thus procure your squirming signature on a contract. Just sign and they'll stop pestering you. You can sleep or gyrate in skeleton girl orgy if you just sign. SIGN. Sign here, Initial there and sleep. As I count down from 10--and on into the ever chugging night--9, the track culls you like a ticking clock scrubbing blackness from the pink skin of the sky by force of habit. 8 -What else does the world turn for, if not lack of other options? 7 -Has anyone convinced it to stop twirling like a mad idiot around the sun, stopped winding it?

Ektachrome moments, 'orbiting' like a moth desperate to burn back up in the mother light of an empty projector, to drink from the sun like a lunar mammary fountain. 6- Reborn as an angel. Every moth who made it past that shade has never told us they regretted it. Five-- Even if they're swept up with the dropped popcorn at the end of the night, they had that one cinematic moment... and they're still here, now, older than Berryman. They're gone now, 4 --but there's always another show. Another  bath - 3  - Goddamn it. 2 --There's always another 1 -- dirty show.... (full)

Dir. David Eggers

Shrouded in portentous gloom and ominous droning electric cello, THE WITCH (2015) is the first great woodsy pre-Salem devil film in 300 years, a SHINING for the ANTICHRIST x BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW subdivision of the HAXAN community (with a dash of the recent HONEYMOON if you're keeping track). Set in 1630s New England on a small tract of cleared woods, surrounded by deep autumnally barren trees and strange sudden houses, it's a character piece that delves into the same dark soul patches that many witch and devil movies make feints at but then run away from, i.e. literal interpretations of authentic superstitions and folk tales (in which witches, devils and magic are real), and court records and history (in which time has made it seem like a mix of religious hysteria, misinterpreted schizophrenia, and fear of the unknown). First time-writer/director Robert Eggers has a unique flair for the milieu--everything feels authentic including the natural lighting (candles and fires) and thin grey streaks of dusk at early evening's onset, the way the gray ambiguity of neither day nor night gives every living creature an unearthly nightmare aura. He makes being straightforward with both the paranoia and the reality into a dark art, connecting Polanski and Kubrick with Ahab's lightning harpoon to forge an historical look at repressed female psychic energy under dogmatic patriarchy within the mould of validation of that patriarchy's overwrought fear of the dark. (cont)

Dir. Ben Wheatley
There's some thin seriously wrong with this film but hey, it's yet another future classic by the team behind FIELD IN ENGLAND and KILL-LIST, Ben Wheatley and producer/writer Amy Jump (his Debra Hill if you will), so even if it ain't perfect, it's far beyond its peers. I almost stopped watching when the main antagonist, a louche, abusive drunk TV star played by Luke Evans (DRACULA UNTOLD) drowns an innocent dog for no real reason other than its owner is a rich snob (one of the more needlessly disturbing moments of the cinematic year). Of course JG Ballard's style. He loves him a rough trade rentboy getting away with murder in a society too polite and jaded to dispatch him. The metaphor (classes in the high-rise separated by floors) is a little left over from SNOWPIERCER which starred Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in a beard, but hey, his Avengers enemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a medical teacher not above convincing rich twits they have inoperable brain tumors just to watch 'em snuff it. Its flaws are many but its narrative incoherence succinctly conveys the author's viscous misanthropy and in the process makes Cronenberg's Ballard adaptation of a few decades ago, CRASH, seem naught but a fender-bender. That a massive skyscraping residential building might lose its elevator service and electrical power and then never get it back, that this even might lead to a reversion to savagery on the upper floors (since it take literally hours of stair climbing to get up and down from each floor) is hard to believe, unless of course you've ever dealt with out-of-order elevators in a skyscraper, had to club 20 flights just to get some groceries, you know the pain. The cumulative context places HIGH-RISE exactly between DREDD, SHIVERS, and ZARDOZ --tellingly, not one film on that list is American. Heil-Rise Britannia and her Commonwealth. We should know --we used to be part of it. But look at us now! We bopped our way past! 

Dir. Peter Atencio
Key and Peele, man, WHAM!

Dir. The Duffer Brothers

This a great moment near the end of this amazing mini-series, where four boys are excitedly recalling the events of the past eight episodes to a rescued friend whose smile is so heartrendingly open and thrilled and the kids so animated that it's hard not to well up in a kind of paternal glow far beyond the usual mawkish nostalgic treacle; as a kid who read Stephen King and played Dungeons and Dragons with lead figurines and lived in that murky weird world of preteen boys with big imaginations and artistic finesse (i.e. bad at sports), I can vouch that someone finally did it right- even if it is the porn sounding 'Duffer Brothers"

There's Winona Ryder--doing batshit very well as that rescued kid's driven-crazy mom--and even if things don't always resolve well or wherever it goes, the film / show/  miniseries / whatever - it still does the Stephen King miniseries better than any actual Stephen King miniseries. The big soaring climactic emotions are all earned and unlike other shows that seem to be just having shit happen to keep you watching--threads woven and then abandoned; more and more threads and nothing woven; sharks jumped and lectured--ST has a genuine catharsis. The hero doesn't always get the girl or the single dad and single mom get together to somehow form a family.... but between the ominous analog synths, retro early 80s mood and fonts, this is everything we ever wanted to rent for the weekend from the video store.... you know, before Blockbuster -- when the video store meant the stereo appliance store.

3. BLACK MIRROR (Netflix)


Friday, December 16, 2016

"I never said it wasn't terrible" - 10 quasi-terrific Sci-Fi curios streaming on Amazon Prime

Signs and wonders. While I get my parts together, rest assured (and often). And until then, old friend, if you need something to help put the kids to sleep, or to have in the background while you sleep on the couch and have Amazon Prime. Behold! Colorful, relatively un-gory, sometimes hilariously bad, you don't need snarky silhouettes in the bottom center of the screen to appreciate the badness of ROBOT MONSTER, for example. But don't get too exploratory without me. Amazon doesn't discriminate and there's loads of recently made SOV nowheresville stuff on there, so beware, and take these on this list here, to heart.  Curated by myself, they're all shot of real film, have restored colors (or sharp black and white) and look pretty good despite being bad. The star rating is the average between my fondness (for lost causes) and the actual quality (for non-bad movie lovers); the letter grade is for the Prime transfer itself.  

PS - All images are screenshots off Prime, for quality assurance. 

 (1964) Dir. Ib Melchoir
*** / Amazon Prime transfer - A+

Ib Melchoir, not exactly the most engaging sci-fi story teller (less pulp than wanted, more science than needed), he still always manages to give us just enough psychedelic rat monsters, robots, girl miasmas, mutants, and Weird Tales twists to make it worth enduring the endless in-between slogs of paternal pipe-smoking scientists pointing at maps and charts. A former war hero, Melchoir knew how to stretch a low MGM budget to make it look like a medium MGM budget, which equals a huge budget in a tax shelter country, like Sweden. So this looks like a million bucks, but ain't, honey. To offset the inevitable lapses into egghead longwinded analysis, straight-edge males refusing to fire on mutants (since killing is wrong even with a 'yawn' limited food supply), there are some hotties lolling topless in the artificial sun spa and zones rich in LOST HORIZONS-meets-MOLE PEOPLE casual disaffect.

By the time you realize you were dozing off somewhere back around the last slide lecture (a Melchoir specialty), a nice 'awake to the problem of overpopulation and/or getting wise to the genetic con job that is reproduction and life' kind of epiphany may well have erupted in your absence, addressing what was still considered a serious problem here on Earth back in the 60s-70s: overpopulation.

Somehow, today, though our population has more than doubled since then, we're not allowed to worry about it anymore. When may we unleash the kraken, Major? It's been idling a mighty spell.

Whatever your outraged stance on that last sentence, rest assured there's no browbeating here, instead Melchoir offers the same kind of mellow mix of awe and sleepiness you might feel during Walter Pidgeon's walking tour of the Krell wonders in 1956's  FORBIDDEN PLANET.  If you're wondering why it looks so damned good even today, know that the great Czech ex-pat Vilmos Zsigmond did the cinematography (he'd later shoot Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS) and someone along the chain from the vault to restoration to transfer, there was someone who was looking out for this film -- I call her, Antidecasia. goddess of 35mm color restoration, and Zsigmond is clearly a royal consort.

(1962) Dir. Sidney W. Pink
*1/2 (Amazon Prime transfer - B-)

A visibly hungover, irascible John Agar leads an international space crew up Uranus or wherever, and there's a stop motion animation one-eyed rat monster, ghostly Swedish broads, a giant psychedelic eye, and fir trees. So far so good --right? No, Uranus looks like a thawed Disney Finland and the alien broads dress in overly-starched Dutch maid aprons rather than sexy mini-skirts, giving this allegedly loungecore space exploration a kind of dispiriting vibe like we're six years-old and being bored during a 60s-70s birthday party visit to a matinee showing some K. Gordon Murray fair tale import, one that will burn its way into our flu/fever dreams for years to come. Still, no matter how much it may put you to sleep like a longwinded grandpa's hazy memory of seeing Sputnik on the radio, keep it on until the end for the astro lounge credits - it's the star-swingin'-est theme song ever, set to groovy planet space scenes, like a series of Esquivel covers. If your AA sponsor permits you, mix yourself a 5 AM martini and let its dreamy lounge vibe provide the coup de gras for a little Melchoir coma (he co-scripted). As Teleport City's indomitable Keith puts it:
"Journey to the 7th Planet isn’t very good. It moves at a snail’s pace toward a predictable conclusion. The characters are pretty dull. The special effects are pretty awful, on the rare occasion that they make themselves known. And yet, as you can guess, there is something strangely compelling about the movie. It’s like an album you put on in the background."

(1995) Dir.
**1/2 (Prime Image: A)

This "other" mid-90s Michael Crichton novel adaptation got a bad rap at the time for being 1) overbudget; 2) racist; 3) dinosaur-less; 4) bearing a ridiculous talking ape. Not since the 1976 KING KONG had so much money been spent on a movie featurng a guy in an ape suit. JURASSIC PARK had just come out a couple years earlier and so Crichton's name was now associated with this cutting edge effect called CGI, so CONGO's old school analog effects only invited 'extinction'-based associations by smarmy critics.  Now, however, the smoke has cleared and we can re-examine the film free of all liens. CONGO, it turns out, is worth the trip. It glows with early 60s matinee nostalgia, reminiscent of those terrible old H. Rider Haggard-or-Edgar-Rice-Burroughs adaptation safaris crafted by flim-flam sci-fi wizards like Irwin Allen and Dino De Laurentiis, those lost civilization adventures from the 60s-70s, slung together with potted jungles and terrarium lizards rear-projected and enlarged, lashing their tongues out at middle-aged lumpen former A-listers pretending to leap over great precipices and burbling science fair volcanoes or firing their period fowling pieces at big foam-rubber pteranodons zipping by on visible wires.

In case you can't tell, I also got no problem with giant
diamonds lying around, as if falling fruit, volcano rear projection, ape suits, the corny ape translation device, or even the ape's sappy bromance with 2nd tier-Swayze Dylan Walsh. Why, you may ask? Laura Linney as the expedition leader, ably commanding an all-male cadre into the Congo to find boss Joe Don Baker giant diamonds for his satellite space laser. Whether she's navigating the hierarchy of super-intelligent white apes, toppling Congolese juntas, or dealing with Tim Curry's greedy treachery, Linney stays savvy and cool, neither relying on bitchy bossing or sexy manipulation to get men to do her bidding. I like too how the mysterious white apes are all uniquely different from one another, with complex cross-tribal strategies, and there are moments when they're battling the automated machine gun sentries and laser fences that you think FORBIDDEN PLANET, ALIENS, and PLANET OF THE APES are all swirling together under Paul Simon lyrics about lasers in the jungle somewhere. In short, it's schlock paradise, just for a minute.

(1953) Dir. Phil Tucker
* / Image - B

Growing up, Ed Wood's PLAN NINE and BRIDE OF THE MONSTER were always on TV, but ROBOT MONSTER was just a myth, something we read about in the Medved's "Golden Turkey Awards" book and pined for, dreamt of, hoped one day to see. Now here it is forever, and it's even better/worse than anyone dared hope. Miracles and wonders. 

I loathe tow-head boychiks gallivanting around in shorts and fishbowl space helmets as much as the next guy, nor do I like "it was all a dream" resolutions --two problems that beset this Phil Tucker classic. But if you wait to start watching until after Johnny falls asleep in the cave in the beginning, and then turn it off before the last scene you can imagine it ends in a montage of ONE MILLION BC stock footage and inserts of Ro-man walking up to the camera and back and sticking his hand out with lightning scratched onto the emulsion by a pin (I used to do that on my own super 8mm films!). 
Is it worth all that trouble? Of course! See the herculean devotion to the cause of art that is George Barrows lumbering to and fro in a giant gorilla costume with a diving bell helmet, carrying a screaming girl Al-lice (a sublimely haughty Claudia Barrett), over and down the hills around Bronson Canyon! Savor the thundering Wagner-meets-playful Raymond Scott-ishness of Elmer Bernstein's booming score! Marvel at the only family left alive (due to the German doctor's whizzbang invisibility shield and immunity serum) who decide to tie daughter Al-lice's hand with a shoelace to stop her from escaping their bomb crater basement hideout to meet Ro-Man who feels "that she would understand." Gape at sexist lines like "you're either too smart to be so beautiful or too beautiful to be so smart." Be impressed Tucker's not afraid to have Ro-Man strangle a five year-old girl, and then rip Alice's dress. Bam - those church chimes come blaring down like someone shot a hole in THE OMEN. "If Ro-Man wants us, he should calculate us," notes the Operation Paperclip scientist father. "The great one himself sends the cosmic blast!" retorts the head Ro-Man from space Skype. It's so good you can see it again mere minutes after its over (especially if you stop when I say, during the giant dinosaur apocalypse so you can skip the dream ending) or go directly onwards, into the Canyon for the next film..

(1959) Dir. Bruno Ve Sota
 **1/73464.006th  (Amazon Image - A-)

Here's a diverting cross between a raggedy Monogram East Side Kids misadventure, a YOU BET YOUR LIFE-era Groucho Marx failed TV pilot, and a 50s Roger Corman beatnik horror-comedy. The plot has a pair of goldbricking privates accidentally stumbling on a space ship wherein two sexy gigantic buxom space women and their twirling carrot monster underlings are hatching a plan to conquer the Earth. The boys have to warn their C.O., but how can they without getting a section-8?

It gets weirder from there, so be warned.

Some of my fellow sci-fi critics, with no gift for recognizing wry Bronson Canyon bongo drum laissez-faire underneath this pair's blue collar comedy "antics" but for those of us who wonder what it would look like if Frank Tashlin, Three Stooges, and Bugs Bunny got together on a bad hooch bender, now we know. And we're glad we wondered, because we'd have never guessed it would be... this. As the goldbrickers, Robert Ball, Frankie Ray are just okay, but I love the side bars, like the George Armitage-Firesign Theater-Duck Soup-esque officers (such as the colonel who tenderly combs his platoon's eyebrows before taking them on maneuvers) and the two giant space broads (Gloria Victor and Dolores Reed) are given dialogue and Russ Meyer Vavoom authority. Their craft is staffed with carrot monsters who run and dance and twirl their fringe tops. Who could refrain that had a heart to love? There are also some whooping, dancing, peace-pipe passing hipster Native Americans (you'll want to study the crazy dance moves of their chief--clearly Jonathan Haze with a deep tan) and all sorts of absurdist self-aware Brechtian throwaway movements, tapping into the same kind of zany underground west coast beatnik disaffect that makes Corman films like BUCKET OF BLOOD and SHOP OF HORRORS so durable. In fact, a lot of Corman stock company actors work behind the scenes here, including Haze [writing] and Bruno VeSota as the director, and they clearly picked up on the same deadpan beatnik absurdity.

The weakest aspect of the film, actually, are the dated hackiness of the leads, but even they have the taste to not just imitate one set of comedians but all of them. Ball gives us a whirling roster of Joe E. Brown, Bugs, Curly, and Bert Wheeler; Frankie Ray goes more for sly tossed off imitations ranging from Peter Lorre to Cagney and Eddie G. Robinson. If the patter between them can get a little Vaudeville corny, well, one gets the same shit in Wheeler and Woolsey movies, and you seem to love those! So suck it up, private! At least they know how to play it cool when giant space broads takes them onto their laps. If like me you've studiously avoided this film due to reliable critical consensus, then you'll want to track down those critics and give them a hearty bitch slap while shouting Tura Satana quotes. Any movie with two legitimately giant hotties, wild-eyed carrot monsters, cheap laser guns, and "electronic noise" by Jack Cookerly and Elliott Fisher (aka Jack Loose) can't be all bad. Make it the triple feature bridge between Godard's ALPHAVILLE and Jack Cunha's MISSILE TO THE MOON and suddenly, it will all make sense. Don't ask what 'kind,' just sinse it.

1950) Dir. Kurt Neumann
*** / Amazon Image - B+

1950 was the year science fiction broke, with George Pal’s Technicolor DESTINATION MOON launching itself into America’s consciousness via a juggernaut of space publicity. Riding the cosmic wake of that juggernaut was ROCKETSHIP X-M, made for a fraction of MOON’s budget in glorious black and white and later red-tint. The story is, as the ads summarized; “four guys and a girl in space!” Said guys consist of mustachioed brainiac Dr. Eckstrom, (John Emery), obligatory hick who never shuts up about Texas (Noah Beery Jr.), dour pretty-boy pilot Harry (Hugh O’Brian) and starry-eyed super-sexist Col. Floyd (Lloyd Bridges), who falls for Swiss scientist Dr. Lisa Van Horne (Osa Massen), “the girl” battling male egos in her bid to substitute her own calculations. Starting off at a press conference while the countdown to blast-off ticks ominously in the background, the film wastes no time in getting its crew into space. But soon a miscalculation in their fuel mixture drives them off their original moon-bound course towards Mars (no doubt easier to get to), where the guys and girl find some shocking secrets (and red tinting), like boulder-tossing mutant survivors of a global nuclear holocaust who look suspiciously like cavemen.

Preceding the actual moon landing by 19 years, and DESTINATION MOON by several weeks, this staunch Kurt Neumann production manages to still seem somewhat modern today thanks to moody black and white cinematography, low-key performances (they're all on a small quite ship, so no need to shout). An intelligent script from a then-blacklisted (hence uncredited) Dalton Trumbo uses the pros and cons of male-female dynamics rather well (Van Horne insists on substituting her own figures in a way that promotes Eckstrom's sexist resistance, and vice versa), even an element of gender-reversal in the romance between Dr. Van Horne and Floyd, with Floyd spending much of the film sweet-talking her into loosening up (the way a housewife of the era might be expected to soothe her hard-working hubby).

Contrasted to the Technicolor, gee-whiz science lecture/red menace posturings of MOON in fact, X-M can be read as almost subversive. Sure, some aspects of the film do seem dated, such as the comic moments of “selective gravity” (only a few objects float, at random intervals) and Beery’s incessant and corny Texas 'color' (the kind of thing that was a staple on any WW2 movie submarine, bomber, or PT boat). But these things fade in the darkness of the movie’s more mature themes, such as a strong anti-nuclear message and downbeat ending that lend the film a grim, fatalistic edge far more aligned with late 1940’s film noir than 1950’s science fiction, with a hushed acting style so low-key it could almost be a Val Lewton.  (review orig. published Scarlet Street, 2001)

 (1965) Dir. Elio Petri
** (Transfer - A)

As I've written in the past, director Elio Petri's career seems to run on its own parallel track to the evolution of Italian cinema, his work anticipates major trends but then moves on from them right when the breakthrough comes and the slew of imitations swells behind him, like an explosion  walked away from in slow motion. Here he blows up pop culture a full year ahead Antonioni's inestimably influential Blow-up, but instead of blasting a hole in the wall of the Plato's Cave, like Antonioni does, Petri merely cores out a satire of the TV generation that today seems so dated, so broadly and smugly anti-pop culture it makes William Holden's pompous final NETWORK monologue (the "this is real life, Diana, you can't change the channel" speech) seem unpatronizing.

Depicting an inevitable future reality show where people are hunted down and shot in public for big prizes and ratings, this could be a wild forerunner to Death Race 2000, but instead it's too busy being sexist and artsy. Luckily the hunter this season is Ursula Andress--looking beautiful as always. The prey--wearing a black turtleneck and sporting cropped blonde hair, is Marcello Mastroianni and, unluckily, he isn't wearing his trademark sunglasses, and he really should, as he has horrible swollen purple bags under his eyes (he looks like mid-70s Sally Can't Dance speed freak-era Lou Reed if Lou was dumb enough to take his shades off). The harder Mastroianni tries to pass his weariness off as jet-set ennui, the more we wish he'd insisted on doing his own hair and keeping his shades. Was he trying to do contacts? Dude, I tried that once, same result. Put those glasses on and don't let Petri art you up too badly!

We could have used some actual killing (as in, either Andress or Mastroianni) but TENTH is too tame; there's way too much dumb flirting and chasing and not enough chutzpah, lots of dialogue-free stretches and make use of the landscape and urban sightS with breaks for the inevitable falling in love and escaping. And, for all the supposed awareness of dated mores, watching Marcello regularly outsmart such a clever sexy woman during her pursuit carries a misogynistic and unchivalrous undertone. It also irks that, even though he's a well-funded TV star, Marcello is so bad with money he's constantly having his girlfriend's furnishings repossessed, including her comic book collection! When she calls them "the classics" one almost hears the smacks from the author's Marxist collective's high-fives.

For Americans today, alas, seeing the smarminess with which Petri presents this grim pop art future is a bit like watching your father drunkenly hitting on your girlfriend at Thanksgiving, laughing at his own lame 'cool kid' jokes. If you like post-modern pop style of the period--who doesn't?--you should see it anyway - and if you prefer lots of unsubtle communist ideology sewn into your commodified spectacle, hey ---rock on, comrade. Pow!

(1960) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
**1/2 (APT: A-)

The Edgar G. Ulmer story is the stuff of anachronistic filmmaker legend: a seasoned hand at pre-Hitler UFA, he fled the Nazis like so many of his cooler countrymen and was all set to be Universal horror's next F.W. Murnau but instead he fell in love with his script girl, who happened to be already married to studio head Carl Laemmle's nephew. "Uncle Carl" wasn't having him as the alienator of his niece's affections so booted him out of Universal after one great film (THE BLACK CAT). Decamping to poverty row's PRC, working with budgets so low his work went unharried by hack producers, Ulmer made movies that today are acknowledged masterpieces of economy (and narrative dissonance) like DETOUR. That said, TIME BARRIER is not one's not one of his best, even though he makes great after-hours use of a futuristic Dallas World's Fair exhibit--all geometric geodesic angles and offsets--to conjure a post-apocalyptic world that seems sterile and underground, somehow buried under rubble, as if buildings fell as smooth stalactites, creating a highly stylized dream theater vibe that's emblematic of German Expressionism: action seems to occur well outside the boundaries of space and time, in some geometrically disjointed 'corner'-dominated reality.

The story has a test pilot's (Robert Clarke) sound barrier acceleration experiment launch him not only faster than the speed of sound but far into the future, to a world gone mutant, sterile and way, way underground. Naturally, a few old character actor eunuchs have a few young maidens on hand that are dying for a real man's --ahem--essence. However, the suspicious security chief thinks Clarke's a spy for the mutants, who roam above ground or languish in a very stylish prison below. Played by the intimidating Red Morgan, this security officer is given way too many pieces of scenery to chew--on an on he froths and rages--but things perk up once the mutants escape and Ulmer gets some sexy mileage out of the always-fun 'last virile male in an underground babe-land' pulp fantasy seduction. The script is by a decorated WW2 photographer Arthur C. Pierce. Ulmer's daughter Arianne Ulmer is one of the fertile mini-skirted maidens, proving standing up to uncle Carl bears sweet fruit.

(1956) - Dir. Ib Melchoir
*1/2 / Amazon Image - A

It's sleepy time with Ib Melchoir again, delivering the yackity crap and engaging weirdo monsters X-M lacked. This time the expeditionary ship has an angry red-haired girl in the crew--the circle in the middle of their side of the yin-yang, and the monsters are clearly 2-D puppets designed by the great Basil Wolverton (or at the very least, inspired by him). It's kind of a cheap move, but when they come staggering out of the rocks, glowing with that bright red tinting. it's kind of unique to the genre and sure beats XM's savages. The weird negative red effects look relatively vivid in the fresh transfer up on Prime, aand I like the way the animals blend neatly into their rocky surroundings for once, mimicking the animals outlined by all the deranged paredoliacs scouring Mars Rover photos on the Earth's web.

That said, I've never actually watched this film for more than 20 minutes at a time. Not sure what my issue with it is, unless it's the usual Melchoir ZZzz-factor. I figured you should know though, that it looks damn good.

PS - Oh wait, I just tried again. Now I remember: I heartily dislike the approach of landing on a strange world and blasting everything that moves. Dude, that rat spider monster you just blinded might have been a source of wisdom! Where's Dr. Carrington when you need him? Then the leader wants to leave the minute they get there because of the monsters, which is like going to the Running of the Bulls in Spain, then getting a hangnail so deciding to go home before the bulls even arrive.

Man oh man, what a shitshow of a list. Luckily it ends on a potent note:

(1980) Dir. Lugio Cozzi
*** / Prime Image - C- / Shudder Image - A

This Italian ALIEN-inspired sci-fi adventure gets a bad rap in some circles but I adore it. Rather than just have some amok alien eating crew members, this keeps itself on Earth in the present, and decides to focus in on the pod-to-stomach-stage, with rows of ugly watermelon slime pods that explode when ripe and cause instant explosions in the stomach of everyone in horseshoe vicinity. I dig the obvious phone book size padding under the victim's shirts before the explosions; I dig the traumatic Freudian-cave-on-Mars flashbacks. I dig the vibe between the NYC cop who discovers the initial shipment (Marino Mase), the female colonel of the Army's special disease control unit (Louise Marleau) and the traumatized astronaut (Ian McCulloch). The three team up in a sexy 'share-the-woman' synergy (ala DESIGN FOR LIVING, and PAINT YOUR WAGON) and head down to Colombia (the pod shipments erupting in NYC storage hangars were supposed to be coffee) where they're soon ensnared up in a big slimy alien's world domination plan, ala IT CONQUERED THE WORLD.

Louise Marleau's heroine finds a worth opposite number in lovely blonde Gisela Hahn as the evil mastermind's right hand, and I love the alien himself, especially that bicycle reflector eye and the glistening artichoke coloring. Lastly, what really earns my goofball admiration is the Goblin soundtrack. That late-70s-80s European prog rock style has aged well. I don't know what else you need to make you love this dumbass film the way that I do. Whatever's missing, you don't need it.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Myrna Loy: December's Salve

The holidays is a time for joy, giving, family, religious or cultural iconography, cold, boredom, old people smells, excited new dogs, alcoholism, despair, sunshine, candy caning, and-- saving every cold, old dying soul from the terror of time--there's Myrna Loy. She's the ultimate salve for a wounded bloody and so very bowed end to the year, century, mankind, era. She was in THE THIN MAN, Myrna Loy, and FU MANCHU. That heavenly vixen so able to embody exotic blends of counterespionage agents, sexy sadists, loving witty and wry detective wives, good-natured prostitutes always willing to testify against the mob if it means saving an innocent whatever, and vamps with secret hearts of gold. Button-nose cute, too, with a twinkle in the eye so pronounced it's like looking into an ice-packed highball on a country club veranda as the sun sets...

TCM digs it, so Fridays they're pulling out the stops, it's Loy Fridays all month, and Acidemic has culled from its totterirng archives to tell you which ones might well be missed (post-code gender straitjacket re-donning) and must be watched, taped, adored, applied.

FRIDAY 12/9:
(1932) - ***1/2
MGM's contribution to racist sensationalism, this great punchy little film plays like a massive headrush serial, with elaborate exotica sets: opium dens, expressionistic corridors, eerie operating rooms, lightning, crocodiles, spiked crushing walls, ear-drum bell torture, mind control and above and best of all, Myrna Loy as Fah Lo Suee, the sadistic-kinky daughter of the exonerated Fu Manchu (Karloff). As if that wasn't enough, one of the 'good guys' is Karen Morely, who insists she come along on the expedition to rescue ancient Chinese artifacts (the sword of Genghis Kahn) from the Chinese (i.e. Fu), who'll use them to stir a revolt to "kill the white man, and take his women!"
(for more: Free Fu and Fah Lo).

(1932) - ****

I haven't written much about it in the past, but I love this, for if he never made another film, this would make me a big Maurice Chevalier fan. A musical perfect even for those who dislike the genre and Jeanette MacDonald's trilling operetta singing. Here she's pretty sexy as is sister Loy, but not in a winky way - it's knowing and wry without being tawdry (and my favorite spoken song lyric, "you're not wasted away, you're just wasted." Amen. Myrna--playing a sex-starved sister trapped by her moral father at the family estate where no man is under 60, is alas mostly cut out due to being too sexy even for 1932. Every time I see it I long to crawl inside the screen and hurl myself into her welcoming boudoir. France, monsieur, ah France. The quest to find the footage of her singing her verse of "Mimi" while in lingerie in her boudoir is one of the great undertakings of the 21st century. All we have is the above still for now, but one day a pre-release print will be unearthed and the sky will crack open.

(1933) - ***1/2

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) might not give Loy more than a scene or two but turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic meditation, full of great cool midnight moments all its own. Unfolding over one long night in the early days of night flying over the Andes down in Argentina, a very dangerous and historic period in post-WWI aviation--when planes were still open cockpit single propellors unable to get over the peaks, so they have to kind of wind their way through on instruments and one strong wind can blow them off course and straight out to sea or into the face of a mountain--it has curious poetic-noir fairy tale qualities-- a film spent in the pajamas, if you will, occurring in a land where most everyone else is sound asleep, recalling They Shoot Horses Don't They? and, sadly nothing else. So there's Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator in the cockpit down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction and the sublime moment he clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in Buenos Aires tango music on his headphones, and looks up at the dreamy moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Of course, if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust! And now he's got the divine Myrna Loy waiting at home, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile another isolated wife played by Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting.  (See: Andes Hard)

(1932) ***

Myrna Loy may be gliding through her then-typecast parts as Asian or half-caste femme fatales but she's still got Loy star powers, so evil or not,you'll be rooting for her vendetta against a now-married and settled down pack of girls' college alumni racists, all the way (unless you're a prom school snob who's never felt the sting of a snubbing yourself), even if it would stung more and been more daring if Georgie was played by Anna May Wong instead, i.e. actually Asian or half caste. The racism would have some real bite, then, but one understands if not forgives perhaps these pre-code baby steps, and if you love Loy as I do you have a special spot in the dark of your heart for her early Asian vamp roles. What she lacks in the warmth and wit of her later persona she makes up for in slow measured cobra staring, taking full advantage of the unwritten rule where a vamp could get away with all sorts of verboten sordid sadism, as long as she was at least a half-caste (for full review - here)

(1933) ***1/2

This was the one that made critics and audiences perk up and go whoa, this girl is a frickin' star - it just took us awhile to catch on as she was trapped under all those faux-epicanthic folds and exotic headdresses. Warner Baxter is the typical mob lawyer with a secret heart of gold and a shocked butler - and Loy is a party girl his grateful mobster client (Nat Pendleton) hooks him up with, who then winds up helping him get the goods on a dickhead rival mobster who offed Myrna's roommate (Mae Clarke). Either way, she's resourceful, fearless and genuinely touched when he doesn't molest her the night she first sleeps over. You can actually see Loy's wings come out of her back and expand as her character realizes this guy's no naif-in-the-woods, but at the same time no douche, and so, now she doesn't have to get tiresomely noble like Clarke in Waterloo Bridge or resort to her old exotica spellbook. She sees the chance and blooms, and flies clear away with the picture. Nat Pendleton smiles like a helpful marriage counsellor, and it's that even-keeled honesty about character and innate nobility over labels, social standing and circumstance that prevail, leaving up feeling pretty optimistic about the future and smitten beyond words with little twinkly-eyed two-fisted Myrna.

(1933) - **1/2
Of course she still had a bunch of MGM contract parts to fill, and those miscegenation fantasies were big business - here it's the reverse where she's liberated from stodgy British marriage (she's half-Egyptian but--like Zita in The Mummy, Egyptian royalty, so it's okay) by a smoov tour guide gigolo (Ramon Navarro) who's thing is seducing rich bored British wives. (Like Svengali, we first meet him saying goodbye to one, and immediately setting out after another). At first she's just sport, but then he's so fed up with Loy's resistance he abducts her out into the desert, whips her, bathes her and ta-da, it turns out he's the son of a rich sheik on walkabout, so it's okay. As I wrote while in a pervious incarnation: "If you imagine what it would be like if MUMMY star Zita Johan went off into the MOROCCO ending winds to endure SWEPT AWAY-style whipping and dominance head games at the hands of General Yen, well you'll find the erotic Myrna Loy bathing scene to be approximately sexier than Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in SIGN OF THE CROSS, which if these things matter to you, is nowhere near as awesome as Maureen O’Sullivan's nude swimming in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. Frankly I’m ashamed of myself for knowing all this, and so is Ramon Navarro, or will be, once he’s caught by Myrna’s coterie of harrumphing Enlganders." (pop the full capsule here)

That concludes the 9th. Coming up the following Friday (the fightin' 16th), most of the morning and afternoon are those quality but inert post-code MGM triangulated weepers that bottom out Loy boxes but then:

(1934) Dir. Sam Wood

I must preface this recommendation by saying I'm personally no fan of the inescapable soap peddler George Brent. A holdover from the pre-Gable kind of pursed-lip romantic acting which seems today as gooey as a molasses spill, so that he's the bumbling American tourist (allegedly) who knocks the sublimely urbane counterspionage super spy Fraulein Doktor off her heels is a kraw-sticker in this otherwise enjoyable addition to the many pre-code movies made about either Fraulein Doktor or Mata Hari or some fictional combination, ala X-27 (Dietrich's DISHONORED). Why? Maybe it's the weirdly condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to every girl like she's six and just skinned her knee, or his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose like a self-satisfied anteater, or his wholesale buying into terrible romantic lines. He was made for woo, and his behavior here would today be hopefully labeled as stalking.

Here, as Doktor, Myrna Loy is in slinky and exotic mode (probably close to the last time - she had just made THE THIN MAN) and wears a fabulous dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the notion, at least for awhile, that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by a firing squad. Hinting at the steep 'price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence, she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer --fatal for a femme fatale, we know from her strident position on the subject (and since Ben Hecht isn't writing it) that 'Fraulein Doktor' has doomed herself. Too bad for us it's the naive whimsicality of George Brent that woos her away from trapping double agents, and he treads all over her sublime machinations with his muddy American bungler feet.. (full)

Friday 12/23
Merry Xmas!
Trippy musical numbers evoke a time before TV or 3D movies, when the eye was courted as if an indulged royal baby. Or maybe I was just super strung out from a terrible weeklong fever last time I saw it (see: Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD and the Ludovico Flu)

(1941) - ***1/2
Loy and Powell are by now too old for the previous meet-ups' debonair sparkle; Loy's no-longer-amused and patient wife is now debating wether she has the energy to waste time yelling at him. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts to see them play characters who hurt themselves by hurting each other. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinking men Loy's age slide into sobriety, moderation, or an alcoholic ward. They seldom get a second chance to detox their liver for ten years before they, as we say in AA, turn from cucumber to pickle. For an actress who's been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity to make her romance with either version of Powell believable, Loy's had to mellow, and so they seem like Nick and Nora Charles if Nick joined AA and got super boring and preachy for ten years and Nora was so sick of how unfun he'd become she filed for divorce and started dating the local Bellamy. But then Nick relapses she loves him again and hence the title! His co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk makes a weak wooing combo, but it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't, and takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon beneath. But who can't forgive a little torture if provides even a moment of true bliss? (more: William Powell's Psychedelic Amnesia)

Sorry loyal readers if my output late has slowed - I'm writing, but finishing things has become difficult - Diffused, scattered, trepidatious is my heart, even my usual pre-apocalyptic black humor is failing me. BUT things are coming, soon. Crom bless us, every one. fejjpfpdew[

PS - I missed the 1930 advocation of May-December romance, THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH, it was on last week, before I knew it was Loy month, but it will come again... and is avail on DVD... R

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